By Teresa McCall
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
– G.K. Chesterton
The Vietnam War is perhaps the most misunderstood conflict involving US troops in the history of modern times. The word “Nam” evokes a variety of images and feelings depending on one’s age and perspective. Many young people know only what they’ve seen in movies or popular video games. Yet, it was a very real war in which 2.5 million Americans served from 1956 through 1975. One-third of those who served were drafted. Two-thirds volunteered. Whether they were drafted or volunteered, one out of ten who served were injured or killed.
The average age of a US soldier during the Vietnam war was 21, versus 26 during WWII. The average soldier in WWII saw 40 days of combat in a period of 4 years. The average soldier in Vietnam saw 240 days of combat in a one year tour. The US soldiers sent to Vietnam were the most educated military force the US had ever sent to battle. Many young men attempted to take advantage of student deferment and enrolled in college, with the hope the war would be over by the time they graduated. However, the war waged on for nearly 11 years from the start of the draft in 1964.
Bill Lannom of Grinnell entered Officer Candidate School for the US Navy at Newport, Rhode Island in April of 1968, after graduating from the University of Iowa. He finished OCS school in August of the same year, and in September entered Swift Boat School in Coronado, California, finishing in February of 1969. After a two week orientation in February – though the mandated orientation was two months – Ensign Lannom was assigned to a swift boat and crew in Coastal Division 13, at a coastal base in Cat Lo, Vietnam at the peak of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
Listening to Lannom talk about his military experience in Vietnam, one is captivated and pulled into the action. There are aspects of combat he recalls in vivid detail, as if the events happened in slow motion and are there, frozen in time.
There is a reason for this: To forget, he says, is to go crazy.
It’s easy to understand his fear, considering the things the young man from a small Iowa town saw during his time there. He saw death first hand: not only soldiers, but civilians, even babies. There are moments of sheer anger when he speaks about Ho Chi Minh and how the people of Vietnam idolized him and were murdered. Yet, what is clear when he speaks about his experiences is that he did not lose his sense of humanity and his sense of right and wrong, because right and wrong sometimes became blurred in the Vietnam War.
While the US became involved to stop the spread of communism, it was not clear that the people of South Vietnam truly wanted the help. The North Vietnamese communist regime and their allies (Viet Cong) from South Vietnam were waging war on the citizens of South Vietnam, and the United States became the principal ally of South Vietnam. The conflict originated in 1954 as part of the “Cold War” between the US and the Soviet Union. Though the US committed small numbers of troops beginning in 1956, the US’s involvement became more heavily supported in the mid 1960’s.
By the time Lannom arrived in South Vietnam, the war was at a peak. Once assigned to his swift boat, he and his crew began regular patrols of the Mekong Delta, which was divided into five branches. The crew would normally do patrols in two-day stints and they could have a completely quiet tour or all hell could break loose. Typically, three to five boats would patrol the canals and would board and search sampans to make sure they had proper documentation, as well as general patrol of the waterways. The swift boats were constructed of 3/8” aluminum, were 14 feet wide by 50 feet long, and were essentially floating targets. The swift boats normally carried 6000 rounds of .50 ammunition and 4000 rounds of m60 ammunition. Lannom always made sure his boat had 8000 rounds of .50 and 6000 rounds of m60 ammunition.
The swift boats were equipped with an 81 mm mortar, and on the gun tub-twin .50 caliber rotating machine guns. Many enemy troops hid in mangrove swamps and launched rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) without warning. There were also homemade claymore mines, B-40 anti-tank rockets that the enemy used to upset the progress of the swift boats in their mission.
While in Vietnam, Lannom was witness to and part of four medevacs, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In May of 1969, the top gunner on the boat Lannom was commanding took fire that ripped off his flap jacket. Lannom was on the scene and helped remove the gunner’s clothing and tend to the wound. Lannom was a smoker at the time, and used the cellophane from a pack of cigarettes to protect the wound.
The gunner was alive when he was loaded onto the helicopter for medevac, but it was reported later he had died. That was the first death Lannom experienced in Vietnam.
Lannom himself took shrapnel in his right arm on July 3, 1969 while patrolling a canal. His boat was the third boat in a four boat raid. They were idling while OV10 Broncos were covering the boats from the air. The OV10s were low on fuel and left. There was an explosion on the starboard side, and Lannom took the shrapnel cut, a shipmate took a hip injury, and when they realized the rear gunner was bleeding profusely from a diamond cut to his lip caused by shrapnel, Lannom ordered throttles up and they cleared the kill zone. Once they were clear, they idled down a few miles down the canal and were fired on by V59 tank rockets. Luckily, the rockets were not angled high enough and detonated on the water, otherwise the hit would have been devastating. Lannom commented that the QV10s were swiftly on the scene before he could get out, “starboard side hit” after the initial attack. A piece of shrapnel severed the battery cable. One of the crew quickly stripped the cable, reattached it and fired up the engine again.
In what would be Lannom’s last live battle in Vietnam – Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 1969 – he had a new Vietnamese crew member acting as a helmsman who was blown from the hatch of the boat and into the water.
“The tide was going out and the canal was running fast,” Lannom recalled. “An RPG hit the side of the boat, and as if in slow motion, the sailor trainee sitting on the hatch cover was blown up and into the water.”
Lannom admits for a split second he considered leaving the young Vietnamese crew member behind, but soon was fishing him out of the water and onto the deck. In the flurry of fire, he accidentally grabbed the coastal microphone rather than the sector microphone and commanded, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” Every destroyer and coast guard patrol was listening. To this day, Lannom does not know why he didn’t just “throttle up and go”, but in the flurry of activity it seems understandable. The medevac was called by the officer in charge of one of the other boats along with Lannom’s on patrol. The entire crew received bronze stars for the battle, with Lannom receiving the “V” designation for valor.
Though Lannom experienced many situations with his fellow crew members involving life and death, there is one memory involving a small child that is indelibly etched into his memory. For Lannom, it underscored the fact that Ho Chi Minh and those who followed him were brutally ruthless. One day while out on patrol, a man and woman carrying a three-year-old child walked out of the brush. The father begged Lannom to help his daughter. A tax collector had come to the family to collect, and because they had nothing to give, the tax collector shot the little girl. She was barely alive. Lannom was so moved by the parents plea to save their child, he got permission to medevac her to help. He personally took her from her mother’s arms, took the child up the river to the landing zone, where a helicopter was waiting. However, the child died before being transported, and Lannom took the girl back up the river, beached the boat and handed the dead child to her father on the bow of the boat. The father placed the child in her mother’s arms, bowed to Bill and walked away.
Bill Lannom was 24 years old and had held a dead child in his arms. When Lannom speaks of this experience, he reasons that in war, people are shot at – sometimes hit, sometimes missed.
“But this was pure genocide,” he explained. “Inhumanity to man. War crime. I was beside myself, asking, ‘How can their cause be right?’ Ho Chi Minh was wrong. That sort of crime was not justified!”
When Lannom came home from Vietnam in early 1970, he took 30 days leave, saw an old girlfriend, and tried to process all he had seen and experienced. There were times he sat and watched the door, and to this day, still tries to avoid sitting with his back to a door.
“I wasn’t one of these guys waking up strangling my wife, but I wasn’t walking around in the rice paddies either – hand-to-hand, 30 days slogging with one extra pair of socks and underwear. Those guys were amazing,” he recalled.
Once his 30 days of leave was up, Lannom still had approximately 16 months of service left and was to report to Washington, D.C., where he went to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was one of five officers and 25 civilians in the Military Space Division of Soviet Area Office. Lannom would drive to the bus station every day, park the car, take the bus downtown and report to the old post office in D.C., where he would check in at the desk to see if there was a briefcase to be picked up. Lannom says it was an “odd experience”. There were also Soviet defectors who worked at the post office as analysts, reading newspapers.
Lannom received an early out in April of 1970. He came back to Grinnell and rented a secluded cabin near a pond nine miles from Grinnell. Lannom recalls that the cabin rented for $300 per year and had no television or telephone. He lived there for six months and “did absolutely nothing”. Lannom notes that he did not come back to the protests that many of his comrades in larger cities and other areas of the country may have experienced, but he was certainly aware of the sentiment. When asked how veterans cope with their memories from the war, he stated:
“Some go to memorial services, some drink, some just move on, but remembering is important.”
Lannom says he is not bitter at all about Vietnam.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he said. Lannom and his wife, Anne, visited the country a few years ago, and visited some of the places he served.
Despite all the hardships he experienced and the loss of life he witnessed firsthand, it is clear he has not lost his sense of optimism. He reunites with other Vietnam swift boat operators through the Swift Boat Sailor Association every two years, usually in Coronado, California. Through these reunions, he reconnects with fellow veterans who shared similar experiences, but he also meets many young service men and women during these reunions.
Of these soldiers, he has this to say: “The young troops are so impressive. They are crisp, smart, and dedicated. They are so well-trained and are really great. I love seeing them.”